One morning the pond named Haldubala was gone. It had turned into a slushy farm.
Not that the residents of Khempur village (near the city of Sitarganj in Udham Singh Nagar) hadn't noticed what had been going on. Sardar Jangir Singh, a powerful member of the local Rai Sikh community, had been, bit by bit, filling up the pond (named after the spice turmeric, haldi) with earth, emptying it of water and increasing the boundaries of his farm, a few feet at a time. "Every six months he would drop in a few drums of mud. We had ignored it", says Kalawati Singh, a Tharu tribal.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, land and natural resources are increasingly turning into bitter subjects of feuds. And Kalawati Singh and others are mindful of a major change all around them - the dispossession of tribal land by non-tribals. The biggest victims are always the lower castes and the tribals. All sorts of ruses are resorted to in this land grab - offering tribals loans in lieu of land, marrying a tribal woman as a second wife to buy land in her name, employing tribals as servants and getting land registered in their name, etc.
The goal is always the same - to get control over land and natural resources to which tribals have enjoyed entitlement for ages. According to an independent study, in just the town of Khatima for instance, 8071 acres of land has been transferred from tribals to non tribals since the formation of the State of Uttarakhand.
But the women of Khempur were not willing to let their pond go. "There were four ponds around Khempur earlier. Three had already been lost to encroachments", says Kalawati.
The first instinct of the Tharus was to attempt to resolve the matter amicably. But when Jangir Singh threatened them, they decided to ask the administration for help. It was the women who took the lead. Among them Kalawati - the secretary of a local self help group (SHG) - and Pushpa Devi, treasurer of another SHG. Both are also part of the Khempur unit of the Bhoomi Adhikar Manch (BAM) a land rights forum. Both the SHGs and BAM are part of a five year development project called Bhoomi, funded by the British government's Department for International Development. Implemented by the Indian arm of Find Your Feet, UK, the project launched in 2007, addresses issues of poverty, lack of empowerment and denial of rights to 2580 tribals, mainly women, in 90 villages in Uttarakhand.
Four days after the pond had been taken over, 15 women and six men went to the panchayat in Dhusri (which covers six villages) to demand that the pond, a community resource, be returned to them. For a month nothing happened, despite Jangir Singh.s promise to the panchayat that he would return the land.
A month later the women again approached the Panchayat. A formal proposal for measuring the land and changing it back into a pond was passed. "Not all women joined in. They said the sardar was a dangerous man. We said, we are much more dangerous than him. And we told the women, if you won't help us now, we won't permit you to use the pond when we get it back", remembers Kalawati.
Two days later the temporary wooden logs that served to mark the area were forcibly removed by Jangir Singh. More threats to the women followed.
Pushpa Devi says that act made the women even more determined to fight for the pond. "We heard the Rai Sikhs had been complaining among themselves that the women of Khempur talked too much and needed to be taught a lesson. But there was no way we could let go what belonged to us and our children. When the other ponds were lost, we did not know a community could own resources. Now we do."
Another demonstration at the SDM office followed and once again block level officials were sent to measure the land. Sensing the growing enormity of the situation, Jangir Singh backed off.
That is just one success story in a state where tribals are slowly realising their rights. Bhajan Singh Rana, president of the state-wide BAM says, "It is not that the tribal does not fight. But once defeated, he loses the courage to pursue the matter any further. Despite their large numbers (Tharus are the biggest tribal group in Uttarakhand) they lose because they are not well represented in government and politics. We are not in confrontation with the government. We are only asking for proper implementation of what has already been promised by the government."
In this case, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 which promises both individual and community rights to communities which have traditionally lived in or around forests and have drawn livelihood from the same.
The women gather on the land they have reclaimed.
Pushpa Devi says the land rights forum has a difficult task at hand. "If we announce a meeting, only a few villagers turn up. They think it is far better to earn a day's labour wages than invest in a meeting that might not yield any results. The emphasis is on enrolling more and more women because while men can be made aware of the issue, they do not feel the emotional connect that women have with land. Though we do not have land in our name, we are determined that our children not be deprived of their rights."
Thus it is unsurprising that in many villages it is the women who are drawing the men to join BAM.
Lal Singh Kopa in Udham Singh Nagar is another village under the project area where women are putting the power of the BAM to good use. Urmila Singh (30) recalls a time when the forest patrols would stop the village women from gathering firewood from the jungles. "I was returning from the jungle with my husband when the forest patrol stopped us and hit my husband. I took off my chappals and threatened to beat him up if he ever tried that again." What followed was a two month battle with the police and the forest department.
"Even BAM members who supported my fight, suggested a compromise to buy peace. I was unrelenting. I was fighting for my family's respect", says Singh. When the local media highlighted the issue, the department was forced to suspend the forest guard and later posted him in another village.
"I see this as a partial victory because the guard must be similarly harassing women elsewhere," says Singh. Thanks to her courage though, the women of
Lal Singh Kopa have not faced any subsequent trouble during their daily forays into the forest. But they recognise that they will have to fight each
step of the way for their rights - confronted by the might of the government machinery, the tribals of Uttarakhand will need many more Kalawatis,
Pushpas and Urmilas.